Slow down to speed up: Getting your discussion paper right
Jennie Kerr, our Lead for Public Policy, sets out some common pitfalls when planning a discussion paper for a policy reform.
As we sit here in the post-election caretaker period, there is much to contemplate ahead of a new government laying out its priorities. The incoming government has signalled that it intends to hit the ground running with a 100-day action plan, and to hold the public service to new expectations of performance and accountability.
For public servants, a key part of this early phase will be supporting ministers in navigating their portfolios and advising them on process for those public policy issues that may warrant more formal engagement or consultation.
New ministers can often find themselves frustrated by a public service pushing back and providing advice on what can or can’t be done without further public consultation. This is especially true with a change in government, when incoming ministers feel galvanised by the voice of the people through the election result, and are impatient to get moving.
So how do you best support your minister as a public servant to get their public policy changes underway? Getting the right approach to a public discussion paper is key.
AN OVERLOAD OF CHOICE
You might think that New Zealand’s flexible approach to discussion papers is an advantage. But the reality is that there is choice overload. And making poor choices at the outset can make or break a policy reform.
Discussion papers are one of the main ways that we seek public feedback on a policy reform. Unlike Cabinet papers, there is no template for them in Aotearoa New Zealand. This means there’s a lot of variety around the style and content of discussion papers.
After advising on policy reforms for more than 20 years, I know from experience that it can be tempting to press ahead at full speed. But if your policy reform needs a discussion paper, then do take a moment to plan. And plan out more than just the timelines.
There are some common things that can go wrong.
PITFALL #1: LAUNCHING A “WHITE PAPER” WHEN YOU NEED A “GREEN PAPER”
In New Zealand, we don’t give a colour to discussion papers. However, a lot of countries use this colour-coding concept for policy reforms, including Canada, the UK, and the European Commission. White papers are used in the business world too.
While both green and white papers set out to get public feedback, a green paper sets out proposals that are at a formative stage while a white paper sets out detailed proposals for change. In New Zealand we often blur the two.
Crucially, a green paper contains no commitment to action. They will be valuable if what you want to do is provide open-ended encouragement for the public to suggest solutions or courses of action, or if you just want to stimulate discussion and develop a better understanding of the problem.
So at the beginning of a discussion paper process, ask yourself whether the purpose of the paper is to generate discussion on the problem or to set out a detailed proposal for a particular course of action.
Consider whether your stakeholders are in the same place as you. Going out with a detailed proposal when your stakeholders are looking for a discussion of the issues can create a lot of challenges for the rest of your reform.
PITFALL #2: GOING FOR A TARGETED DISCUSSION PAPER WHEN THE ISSUE CAN’T BE DISENTANGLED
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to zero in on the exact problem to be fixed. And problem definition is how we are trained to do public policy. Just identify the shape and exact dimensions of the problem, right?
But the reality is that many issues are not truly standalone. And it’s common for stakeholders to disagree on what the problem really is, or to disagree about what the impact is for their particular community. Once an amendment bill is in train, it will often expand to implement more law changes than originally anticipated.
At the start of your discussion paper, ask yourself whether the reform can really be progressed in a standalone way. And think about how you will respond to feedback about related issues or proposals for reform.
Going out with a discussion paper that homes in on some targeted issues can be ka pai. But if your policy issue is just the tip of a larger iceberg, it’s usually difficult to maintain hard boundaries.
PITFALL #3: JUMPING STRAIGHT TO A DISCUSSION PAPER WHEN YOU NEED SOME TARGETED ENGAGEMENT FIRST
It will often be important to consult with affected parties in a targeted way, as a precursor to issuing a public discussion document.
Increasingly now, government policy analysts are expected to partner with stakeholders and to involve them directly in developing policy (while also guarding against industry capture). This is particularly important when the rights and interests of iwi and Māori are involved, or when people's livelihoods are at stake.
Working with stakeholder interest groups in this way is an important supplement to issuing discussion documents, and it can help ensure that policy proposals land well.
PITFALL #4: MAKING IT TOO COMPLICATED WHEN YOU NEED TO MAKE IT EASY FOR THE PUBLIC TO ENGAGE WITH
All good analysis starts with rigorously assessing the options. But if you put all the options into your discussion paper, it can feel like a maze – kind of like going to buy an essential item at the supermarket and 20 minutes later you are still staring at the 25 choices on offer.
My colleague Paul Giles leads our thinking at MartinJenkins on how to collaborate with your stakeholders and the public. He always stresses to me that the mindset you have going into any engagement or interaction is key. Paul says we should always accentuate curiosity, transparency, and a willingness to change direction based on what we hear.
But equally important, says Paul, is providing the information or options you have in a way that can be easily understood. So think about how to frame the key questions you want public feedback on, and consider whether it’s useful to ask about overall support for the reform rather than asking a lot of detailed questions. Aim for fewer questions rather than more. And don’t forget to include space for any other issues your community of stakeholders might want to comment on.
Make sure too that you provide multiple mechanisms for feedback and collaboration, so that you get the insights you need. Make it as easy as possible for the people who are giving you their time and input, as they will often be juggling your requests with many others, as well as doing their own mahi.
PITFALL #5: FORGETTING SOME OF THE BASIC STEPS
In my experience, this is more common than you might think. A structured approach to planning out the steps will help avoid a last-minute scramble. Be systematic, and don’t let untidy planning undermine the quality of your discussion paper.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself early on …
Do I need a Regulatory Impact Statement?
Any proposal that amends primary or secondary legislation needs a Regulatory Impact Statement. This includes discussion documents that seek stakeholder views on a limited number of options (see the useful Treasury guidance on this), as well as any proposals to charge third parties for the cost of government activity.
Have I included time for Cabinet agreement to release the discussion paper?
The Cabinet manual states that discussion and consultation documents must be submitted to Cabinet before they’re publicly released, except for minor and technical amendments.
Do I have a plan for analysing all the submissions?
Gone are the days where you had to rely entirely on a spreadsheet to analyse public opinion on your proposed reform. My colleague EeMun Chen is a specialist in submissions analysis here at MartinJenkins, and she says that using a spreadsheet just doesn’t make sense when there are much faster and smarter tools available now for analysing submissions.
INVESTING ENOUGH TIME UPFRONT
Your advice to an incoming government needs to be well-informed about their objectives and priorities. But you may well need to support them to understand the different paths to substantial policy reform, and the steps along the way.
This could include explaining that it’s sometimes necessary to invest time upfront in order to ease the path further down the line. The hardest advice of all is likely to be that they might need to slow down to speed up.